Tuesday, 27 June 2017
Hey, remember Screamers; the '95 Peter Weller movie about burrowing assassin droids that have wiped out humanity on a distant planet? No? Well, it's pretty good. It also, surprisingly, spawned a sequel.
A rescue team are sent to intercept a distress signal on a planet riddled with Screamers. Once there they are marooned with a small group of survivors and forced to battle their way back home through a seemingly unbeatable army of mechanical bastards.
This movie tries so hard and gets so much right. The visual effects, for starters, are pretty good. Digital work is good enough to be un-intrusive while there is a surprising amount of practical effects. Good ones too. There were also a few shots, including a wonderful set extension, where I couldn't work out whether it was miniature or CGI - always a good sign.
The cast are game and features an early role for Stephen 'Arrow' Amell and an extended cameo from Lance Henriksen. Aside from Henriksen, however, no-one is particularly good. Amell comes close as he broods with the best of them but when he opens his mouth to speak he adopts a raspy whisper and a squinted eye that makes him look like Clint Eastwood with a mouthful of ulcers. In fact, the film pretty much stands still any time drama is required. It is shame because when we get to the good bits they are quite accomplished.
The Screamers themselves are a varied bunch. As established in the first movie they are able to evolve themselves and now take a variety of forms, even masquerading as humans. This presents the opportunity for some Thing level paranoia. An opportunity that of course the film pisses up a wall. They don't even generate Crash and Burn levels of paranoia for Christ's sake. Remember Crash and Burn? No, not that one either?
Thankfully when the humanoid Screamers reveal themselves they turn into pretty awesome mechanical nightmares - a cross between a Terminator and the Reapers from Blade 2 with a little Annihilator thrown in for good measure (Annihilator anyone? Is anyone even out there?). In a standout scene a couple of these bad-boys go nuts, punching through people in wonderfully practical splatter effects. Oh yes, the gore is GOOD.
Which is why I was utterly shocked to discover the film was made in 2009! Even with the presence of Amell (whose age I do not know) I would have guessed late nineties only because it looks and feels like a straight to video sci-fi sequel from that era (and I mean that as a compliment). Finding out it was made in the late noughties, an era of straight to DVD filmmaking synonymous with shitty digital wankery, only generates far more respect for the effort made with this movie.
Look, it isn't good, certainly a step down from the first movie (which you should seriously check-out) but it you are looking for something that scratched a particular aesthetic itch and don't mind drifting off during the bits where people say things at each other you will be rewarded with some good action, fun splatter and a menagerie of murderous mechanoids.
It sometimes feels weird recommending something you know most of your audience will have likely seen. Chopping Mall, for example, is a bonafide cult classic and one that I fully expect most who are into this kind of thing will have seen long ago. It has, however, escaped me until the time of writing this. And so I may be late to the party but I still managed to have a lot of fun.
Automated security bots are introduced to patrol a mall but a lightening storm has made them go haywire to the detriment of the group of teenagers who have stayed beyond closing hours for a party.
Jim Wynorski operates in the same sphere as Corman and Olen Ray - gore, nudity and tongue lodged in cheek. The opening of Chopping Mall features speeded up footage, double-takes and slapstick while the fast-food joint the kids eat in is covered in posters of movies either made by the Director or Production team. Although the build up is nice there was a worry that leaning on the humour and self-awareness a little too much might rob the film of its stakes. Thankfully once the movie slips into slasher mechanics and the robots go on the hunt the film generates some genuine excitement.
The siege aspects are genuinely tense, the deaths count and our final girl, decked out to look like waitress Sarah Conner, is a badass. The robots, although goofy looking in an endearing way, also manage to generate some menace.
That is not to say that the fun is drained from the rest of the movie. Wynorski manages to balance both fun and edge in manner far more measured than one would expected from a killer robot in a shopping mall movie.
For starters the deaths are joyful. A couple of early electrocution deaths fall a little flat but once they start shooting War of the Worlds style death rays I was positively giddy. Considering the low budget feel of the film there is some real production value on display. The shoot-outs twixt robot and teenagers (who have procured firearms from a sporting store) are big and destructive, there are explosions and full-body burns and even a wicked exploding head.
The film feels like it could exist in the same world as Robocop (released a year later) as both the design of the robot and the light satire of commercialism feel consistent, only this ramps up the teen slasher aesthetic for more surface level, but equally satisfying, thrills. Cult gold.
Friday, 16 June 2017
Secret agent Johnathan Cross AKA Jaguar is double-crossed on a mission and severely injured. Once recovered he is sent on a globe trotting mission to hunt down an evil kingpin. This vehicle for Joe Lewis, a martial arts champion and student of Bruce Lee, tries to emulate Bond movies while livening them up with a little martial arts action and manages to miss the mark on both counts. That is not to say it doesn't try - by god it tries.
What surprised me most on first viewing is how much money had been spent on a kung-fu flick I'd never heard of. The opening sequence features a gorgeous location, a shoot-out on a cable car/elevator and a pretty impressive explosion achieved through some unusually great miniature work.
In fact the production value is consistently good. The cast is exceptional and includes Christopher Lee, Donald Pleasence, Barbara Bach, John Huston, Woody Strode to name but a few. It is no coincidence that many of the cast have been picked due to their association with Bond. The movie tries to out-do Bond at every stage featuring some nice stunt work and about a thousand different exotic locations. So how does it fail?
Having more locations than your average Bond movie is one thing, but cramming them into one narrative organically is pretty difficult. And so instead of a developing, escalating spy story we have a plodding travel diary as Jaguar visits a location, meets a guest star, maybe has a fight then moves to the next location. Each of the stellar cast mentioned only get a few minutes screen time before giving Jaguar the info he needs to zoom off to the next location. A pretty repetitive beat quickly forms making a fairly manageable running time seem like an eternity.
This might not be so bad if every location visited had a themed action sequence but this is a movie that commits perhaps the biggest action film sin: not enough action, and what there is doesn't really work. Joe Lewis has skills, clearly, but each fight is so short he never gets the chance to show off anything more than a few kicks. A stunt involving Jaguar hanging on to the top of a speeding car starts exciting but ends not in a spectacular crash or a fight, but simply with the driver getting away. A stand-off in a factory promises the sight of Lewis taking on an army of workers but after a few kicks he scurries over some boxes and gets away. The fights are indicative of the movie's key problem: rather than sticking with something and exploring it, it shows us a glimpses then races off to the next thing.
That is not to say there are no notable moments. Jaguar fighting two guys on motorbikes is inventive if not extensive, a graveyard gauntlet works if only because after each short fight is over Jaguar walks right into another one and the final fight atop the turrets of a desert fortress looks great and if it were matched by choereopgraghy could have been an all-time iconic martial arts sequence.
Lewis doesn't have Lee's charisma (who does?) but is no worse than Chuck Norris. It's clear though the Producer's felt he'd need some help making a splash so they surround him with locations and stars. The end result, though, is that rather than elevate him they drown him out.
The film also suffers from being entirely devoid of vibe. Just thinking how fucking COOL Enter the Dragon is. This movie is the equivalent of a pastel sweater tied-off around the shoulders.
Lewis got to make a few more movies. Force: Five, directed by Dragon's Robert Clouse is better in many ways. He's supported with other martial artists, such as Richard Norton and Benny Urquidez and although it is basically an inferior re-tread of Enter the Dragon it is a far more successful action vehicle for its star. If only that movie had this movie's budget.
Or, better still, if only this movie showed off its star more than its passport and casting agent.
Thursday, 15 June 2017
John Saxon is a constant; a perpetual cross-generational presence in Western cinema. He is an actor that manages to maintain a consistent onscreen persona while displaying great range through under-appreciated subtlety. Despite this he is still only known as a cult actor. And that's bullshit.
His list of TV credits, for starters, is incredible. Think of any iconic American TV series, from Gunsmoke to The A-Team, and he's probably had a part in it. When you include film into his resume, Saxon has had a career that started in 1954 and that still hasn't ended yet (a release in 2017, two more in various stages of development). That's incredible! He's worked with people like Corman, Argento, Craven, worked across genres and continents (he shows up in a lot of Italian movies) and has played pretty much every kind of role you could imagine.
Enter the Dragon is arguably his most iconic role. Saxon's Roper is a charming rogue, saddled with debt but never morose about it. He's a shark, always moving and utterly lethal. He exudes machismo and yet subtly undercuts it resisting the temptation to take the easy route and go full Eastwood. The scene in which he deliberately gets knocked on his ass to work the odds in his first fight is played perfectly. Roper is, perhaps, Saxon's ultimate role - the sum of his parts, the distillation of his on-screen presence. He could have easily repeated this role in a string of cop/action movies but so many times Saxon avoids the easy or expected route.
Saxon has suppressed his charisma to play full-on villains several times, most notably in Battle Beyond the Stars and Prisoners of the Lost Universe. Saxon seems at ease menacing subordinates, grimacing as plans are foiled and generally chewing scenery. Saxon appears happy to play antagonist or protagonist in equal measure, yet his villains aren't always unconventional.
This character transition is also evident in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He plays Lt. Thompson, an overly strict and controlling Father figure perfectly setting himself up not so much as the villain but as an antagonist to the heroine of the piece. When the truth about Kruger, his demise and Thompson's role in it becomes clear Saxon sells his motivations for his character's controlling nature so that you may not agree with his methods but understand them unquestionably.
Saxon's ability to generate empathy for his characters is masterful and key to getting more unorthodox and/or morally questionable characters to work as protagonists. The Glove, for example, is a movie with a killer exploitation premise: Upon release an ex-convict plans to take revenge on the wardens that abused him by beating them to near death with a stolen armour-plated riot glove!
The movie doesn't quite live up to the promise of its concept and for the most part feels like a pilot for a TV show (both in production value and aesthetic). The opening moments, where Saxon's bounty hunter gets into a fist fight with a same-sex couple doesn't present the most measured portrayal of homosexuality. As the movie progresses, however, it's clear there's something much more interesting going on.
Saxon's bounty hunter, Sam Kellog, is by no-means a ruthless or indestructible force but a real human struggling to make ends meet. The above fight aside we rarely see Kellog throwing dudes through windows or beating up punks in alley ways. Instead we see him tracking down an old lady who embezzled some money and letting her go with enough to cover her trip out of the city. We see him building leads from sources both inside the force and out and, most importantly, we see him spending time with his daughter. You see a recent divorce has left him in serious debt and with a daughter he is at risk of loosing altogether. As a result he is forced to take on sightly riskier jobs like, I dunno, hunting down a hulking ex-con with a riot glove.
What adds even more depth to the movie is the treatment of race. Our ex-con is a huge and intimidating black guy but is never portrayed as an outright villain. When not dressed in riot gear we see him going about every day business in his run-down tower block, buying groceries, chatting with neighbours and playing music for the local kids. Every time we cut to him we see a community, when ever we cut back to the white people we see greed, gambling, corruption and betrayal.
Kellog is desperate for money to give his daughter the life she needs and is defeated at every chance. He is down trodden and barely surviving. He is not even given power through violence as when he does open fire and kills a bounty it leads to an investigation, shakes him up and ultimately adds more obstacles to him getting that big score. Very unusual for a 70's crime thriller.
The finale, where Kellog dukes it out with the glove wearing badass, doesn't play out how you'd expect. There is clearly a social conscience and sensitivity at play here and although there are still some problematic elements the movies feels like its heart is in the right play. This is primarily due to Saxon imbuing Kellog with sadness and determination. Despite being a man in a violent world who gambles his money away you cannot help but sympathise for him.
So why Saxon is still seen as a cult actor is beyond me. There was real mainstream charisma backed up with genuine acting ability and a willingness to play against type.
On a side-note I think he would have been great in any number of super-hero characters. Doc Savage, The Punisher, Wolverine, Nick Fury - he could have played any of them perfectly.
John Saxon is a frigging treasure, a joy the moment he pops up on screen and a vastly underrated actor.
Tuesday, 16 May 2017
Die Hard has spawned a great number of offspring featuring any combination of sealed-off locations and wrong time/place dudes with a secret talent for anti-terrorism. Although Everly contains some of the same DNA as Die Hard, right down to the Christmas setting, it is by no means your average child. If Under Siege and the like are the Sawyer family, Everly is Leatherface.
Everly (Salma Hayek) is trapped in the apartment of a Yakuza boss, forced to be his lover through fear of reprisal on her Daughter. When it is discovered she has made contact with Police the boss sends waves of assassins after her. As the threat escalates Everly must find a way to get herself and her family out of the apartment and to safety.
Everly begins in the immediate aftermath of a gruelling sexual assault. It is a tough place to start a movie and with a cinematic landscape full of abused women it is easy to feel a little distanced from the proceedings right from the opening. It is that landscape that is the issue more so than the treatment of the assault itself. Unlike many rape revenge movies this does not fetishise the act. The assault itself happens before the film starts meaning our titular character gets out of victim mode and right to the revenge part as quickly as possible.
It's clear Lynch isn't interested in cheap voyeurism not just by having the assault take place off screen but by his treatment of Everly's body and costume. Normally a character finds themselves losing both clothing and, depending on the severity of the action, flesh throughout an action movie. Although this stands to reason (explosions tend to damage clothes) it does mean that action movies often function as some perverse striptease with finely honed bodies getting more naked and sweatier as the violence escalates. In this case, however, Everly starts the movie completely naked and adds layers of clothing as the movie goes on. Sure, she gets her fair amount of damage, but the gradual adding of layers shows a systematic conditioning after the awful event that preceded the movie. We literally see Everly build her armour in front of us.
Filming around the sexual assault, so that we have effect more than cause, is by no means a cop-out or lack of conviction but a consistent aesthetic. Although the film never shys from the grotesque, the camera often parks on the outskirts of action. Characters vanish round corners or into doorways only to expel clouds of smoke and debris from within. Explosives are flung out of shot and broken bodies flung back in response. One especially satisfying set of kills happens behind closed doors while the collateral damage is viewed through security cameras.
All of this is risky for an action movie and, attempted without skill, could be disappointing. I imagine there are many explosion hungry action movie lovers who might feel a little malnourished. Director Lynch's expertise in knowing how to block, frame and cut this kind of action means that it is beautifully rendered. The timing of the sequences is razor sharp and manages to be both brutal and very funny in equal measure.
And it is nowhere near as risky as the utterly insane middle segment of the film. I don't want to say to much as you'll get some pleasure out of wondering what the hell is unfolding in front of you but I don't think I'll be leading you astray if I tell you it kind of feels a little like Big Trouble in Little China played as straight horror.
When you have a single character in limited locations you need a real talent to hold it all together. Hayek is incredible in this movie. She walks a precision line allowing her to play vulnerable and badass while reacting to brutal reality and almost cartoonish absurdity without ever feeling inconsistent. She has a real Pam Grier vibe throughout and I'd love to see her in more of these kind of roles.
Everly might leave your more traditional action fan cold as it is far from conventional. Yet for a movie that takes so many risks, not just in the more bizarre moments but in the very meddling with action vernacular, it features action that puts most competitors to shame.
So here we are; the third in the unofficial Robo-Warrior Trilogy. The climactic act at the end of an upward trajectory of quality and oh dear it's shit.
Counter Destroyer has some things going for it. Counter Destroyer is a cool title even though it sounds like it's about someone who doesn't like losing at boardgames. It is consistent with the other entires in the series in that with the exception of hopping Jiangshi there is nothing that connects any of the movies whatsoever.
And for most of the running time that's all the good you get.
Even with the series lack of canonical elements this movie stands all by itself. The first two both featured hopping vampires wrapped up in a heroin plot and going toe-to-toe with a robotic warrior. From what I can tell this film features no heroin dealers. It also doesn't feature a robotic warrior.
Yes, I am sorry to report that the finale of the Robo-Warrior movies does not actually feature a robotic warrior, for the most part. There is a man called Paul (different name as the Robo Warrior from the second movie) who at one point dons a white ninja outfit and fights some vampires but this doesn't happen until 38 minutes into the film and at no point is it suggested he is robotic in anyway.
Not only does this feel like a massive cheat it also messes with my OCD. Since this now features a ninja this should have gone into my Ninjas, ninjas, ninjas! articles. It would, however, be weird for the final review of a three part film to be written in a different format and placed in a different section of the site. For all this movie's crimes messing with my system might be the worst. Fuck you Counter Destroyer, why didn't you consider the eventual organisational nightmare you would cause me when you made this film in 1989? You're a dick.
So without robotic warriors and heroin deals what is left?
The exhilarating plot seems to revolve around rival film companies trying to produce the same movie about the first Emperor of China. As always it seems at least two movies had footage culled to make this Frankenstein of a film. The first seems to be a cops and robbers drama while the other is a haunted house movie. Those holed up in the house are the screenwriters while the heroic production company go up against the evil rival company in the crime drama section.
I don't know if the evil company are using the movie as a front for something as (full disclosure) I quickly stopped concentrating. They do, however, employ vampires and ghosts to terrorise their rivals and the whole mess is sorted out in a yacht-set shootout. I'll admit to not having any first hand experience of the Chinese film industry but I have to assume this is anything but conventional. Could it be a razor sharp satire, extending the cutthroat nature of the movie business to its logical, if absurd, conclusion? No, no it couldn't.
With that section of the movie a complete abyss of entertainment in falls on the supernatural element to hold our attention. This also fails us.
Joyce, our screenwriter, and her assistant Fanny (I think) cut themselves off in a lush apartment to write their film. Here they are beset by supernatural occurrences such as the appearance of goofy, comedy Jinagshi and a Freddy-like clawed creature.
It appears neither actress are at the top of their game and coupling this with some of the worst voice acting I have ever heard results in almost unbearable exchanges. Even calling out a name three times seems weird and otherworldly, like a robot programmed to mimic human behaviour having a systems crash. The dinner and pool sequence are nicely lit and shot with some degree of technical competency but it's like the cast and crew have never seen human beings interact. It also doesn't help that the voice actors don't understand silence. When not talking they still make grunts, sighs and heavy breathes so that every moment their character is onscreen they are making noises. This has the unfortunate effect of making them sound like they are always on the business end of some kind of sexual stimulation. These scenes are so awful they are actually worth a look.
The whole movie is a void of enjoyment, a gaping whole where entertainment should be. A total waste.
And then it suddenly gets good. You see I've been misleading you slightly, not out of cruelty but to help you experience the movie's final reveal in the same way that I did.
Ten minutes before the end of the movie and with the plot seemingly wrapped up in a lacklustre exchange of gunfire we rejoin Joyce. Paul comes to see her to find She has killed Fanny and that her arm is possessed; Evil Dead 2 style. Paul battles with her and strikes her down only for the claw-hand creature that was possessing her to leap in corporeal form. Paul spins in a circle, as if on a turntable, and transforms into...
The mutha-fuckin' Robo Warrior. The dude shows up, out of nowhere, ten minutes before the movie ends dressed in his previous outfit - weird foil moobs and odd pointy shoulders and all. I genuinely wanted to cheer. The movie had successfully manipulated me, had played the long game and built anticipation for the return of this character. It had revealed to me that I had a secret fondness for this goofy robot dude and seeing him back on screen warmed me in a way I wasn't expecting.
Then I though that even a glass of piss would taste great to a man lost in the desert for weeks.
While Robo Warrior and creature fight it out, the goofy comedy vampires return to nibble on Joyce. As they do her stomach swells and bulges until it explodes, launching a full-grown child Jiangshi into the air. This child then berates the two comedy vampires for killing his Mum and starts to beat them up before hovering on the ceiling and pissing all over them. I promise I am making none of this up.
Robo Warrior defeats the creature and since the comedy vampires and child are good, or something, he lets them go. They bury Joyce and then the claw hand bursts out of the grave like Carrie. The End.
Counter Destroyer is by far the worst of the series even considering the low bar set by Devil's Dynamite. Ninja magpie Godfrey Ho worked under many aliases and has been rumoured to be the actual Director of the series, yet even he denies having anything to do with this shit. The first movie has an okay fight towards the end, the second is the usual brand of B-movie with some pleasant moments of bat-shittery and while the last ten minutes of Counter Destroyer is delightfully mental the only other moments worth a look are the aforementioned god awful dialogue scenes. Considering at least six movies were plundered to make this series, one movie and handful of scenes doesn't seem like a great return on the investment.
I'm now going to stare into a mirror and question why I do this to myself.